It Must Have Been Dark By Then by Duncan Speakman. A review. UK trip 2019

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Locative audio is a broad church: from mobile connected wayfaring guides to cultural historic tours using GPS to radio transmitted museum tours. Few people who are working in this field today bring the breadth of creativity or understanding of function and form that UK based artist Duncan Speakman does. He is no stranger to locative performative art and creative collaborations. His work has showcased both in the UK and overseas and won him numerous awards.

The blog discusses Duncan Speakman’s mobile app, It Must Have Been Dark By Then as an example of locative audio, and place-making today. Dark By Then (shortened here) was commissioned by the Bristol based Ambient Literature team in 2017 and lies at the more creative art-house/performative end of the locative audio spectrum. It is sometimes described as an elegy to the anthropocene due to its environmental message that presaging the enormous change to come. For artists, sound engineers, academics or producers like me, who have worked in this field for some year now, who wish to understand where things are heading in the field of locative audio, and who believe that audio is at the heart of what some might call place literacies, this work is well worth discussing.   

Dark By Then is a freely downloadable app that works on both IOS and Android. On a cold Saturday morning, as part of the Submerge Festival, I watched as Speakman dealt with festival goers who had come to the Watershed Studios in Bristol to try out his app. Speakman was more than au faux with the demands of the day, lining up headphones and android phones that he’d prepared especially, ticking off the booking sheet and sending people off outside into the great unknown.

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Unlike the other two works that Ambient Literature commissioned (James Attlee’s, The Cartographer’s Confession and Kate Pullinger, Breathe) this one’s particularly well suited for the festival circuit by dint of its original sound design, its experimental form and resistance to conventions: and on this note, as someone recently suggested, It could be compared with Charlotte Spencer’s geo-locative performance piece, Is This a Wasteland?

Dark By Then also comes with its own book: a companion piece to the app experience. The book squares well with Ambient Literature’s original brief to explore mobile works that are at the intersection of the book and locative media. It had the support of writer, academic Tom Abba and much like Speakman’s work to date, it has a meticulous eye for creative detail: from its poetic text, to its careful line breaks to the cartographic images and deliberate transparent pages. The book is not designed to stand on its own and is more a boutique item than a pot boiler. While I found it sometimes a little cumbersome to deal with on a cold and windy day it does bring an important dimension to the experience and move things along.  

Chapter one, titled ‘Somewhere’, reads:

I’m looking at a Google map on the screen of my phone. Even though I know these are projections, not copies of the world, I am already trying to picture what places might be like. My imagination is rooted in fictional depictions of the unforgiving desert and mysterious swamp dwellers. 

Herein with the book we begin a series of chapters: each one catapulting us into a different place and space on a journey that Speakman took. It’s a big journey that crosses many continents: from the deserts in Tunisia to the winter roads of Russian-speaking Latvia to the wetlands of the Louisiana delta.

Here’s an extract from Chapter 5 that caught my eye. It’s from Port Fourchon, at the southernmost point in Louisiana:

Raymond is fixing up a refrigeration unit he’s picked up for the crabs he catches, his cousins watch from the veranda high above. Sylvia appears from the next building and rides over to us on a motorised lawnmower. She hands Raymond a letter from the FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Authority.

“You need to deal with this.”

The book provides a number of such intimate moments and is a tactile counterpoint to the app experience. It also begs a longer study into how, where and why locative audio is intersecting with transmedia today: whether text messages, personalised phone calls etc. It is the app, however, and the audio in its many guises, that determined the primary path, or series of paths, of this locative experience. In order to discuss these elements, I need to mention that this project is highly resistant to explication. As the book’s by-line reads “A collection of dispersed maps” we are entering into the world of psycho-geography: whether notions of authorship, the artifice of maps (think Deleuze and Guattari) or the disruption of a linear journey (aka Dérive and Guy Debord). For history buffs expecting a standard cultural heritage tour then think again. This piece is built on shifting sands and not everyone is going to like that.   

It was Speakman who rightfully suggested to me that the best way to understand this app is as a two-part experience: the journey out and the journey back again. For me this feel right. The journey out and the journey back in are two quite different experiences. The journey out saw me on the streets of Bristol with my noise reduction headphones keeping my ears warm, the Dark By Then book in one hand, my phone in the other. It was blowing a gale and when I managed a look at my screen, I could see that ubiquitous blue GPS dot pulsing on a lightly gridded map. There were no maps, no reference points or markers around me. For people like me who are partial to maps and narrative conventions, this is a little challenging at times. I could have been anywhere: whether on the shifting sands of Tunisia, the encroaching waters of Florida or on the winter streets of Bristol. This of course is part of the design of this experience: to disrupt expectations and dislocate a sense of place. This trope is further supported through the female voice, a narrator of sorts, who I will call She. She is here from chapter one, both intimate and ethereal:  

So, the text that you just read, those words on the page, they were not mine. Did you imagine a voice speaking them? What was it like? Whatever it was like, it was not this voice, not my voice. My voice is just here to guide you, to help you make a kind of map. To create this new map, I’m going to sometimes ask you to read certain chapters of the book and sometimes send you on journeys seeking things out. I hope that’s ok.

She invited me to walk on, steer my own course, stop to reflect or read a chapter, even mark sites to remember for my return journey. She also offered a commentary on the world around me.  

One day everything here might be underwater. And what is visible underneath may well be floating overheard. You should read chapter five now… Sometimes we don’t get to choose where we settle. We are forced to take refuge. Will you remember this location? Who first built this place? Who first staked their claim here?

While this voice has been carefully scripted and is in no way gratuitous, I found myself becoming resistant to her over time. I’m not sure why exactly but it had something to do with the environmental premise of this work. I get that climate change, political and commercial interests, and shifting populations are irrevocably changing the world –as well as anyone can get it. I get that we each face the prospect of great turmoil and that many people now are, and soon will be, living in exile. I also know that such a realisation is almost beyond the scope of comprehension, let alone description. It is an experience so far outside my frame of reference. And while I admire what Speakman is trying to do here, I’m not sure I can make the connection to this topic and the world around me through this voice? Much as I want to like her.

With any fiction, or even non fiction, we are invited into the experience, we are invited in by the narrator, whether reliable or unreliable, on the tacit understanding that we will get something for our time. Same too with many geo locative apps today. We walk five hundred metres for a story, a reason or promise - be it simply to find out more. But here I am not sure: is this about having my expectations subverted as part of a festival performance? or is it seeking to affect real change - and through a narrator who gives little, or nothing, away of herself. For me, if there’s something unresolved in the central premise of Speakman’s work, it lies here.

But this is a small price to pay for a work that brings a certain excellence in locative storytelling and is risky and full of energy. For example, the original sound beds and the audio composition as a whole work well to support our journey from the beginning to the end. They ebb and flow, sometimes akin to an industrial wasteland, other times more intimate and inviting. Layered into these are audible filaments of motorboats, cars, the sound of water, voices in a crowd, prayers at a mosque. I liked these a lot. When married with the austere visual look of the project these are highly suggestive and up the ante.

Then on the return journey, when She told me that I’d reached the end of my path, that this was the end of my journey with her (I felt relieved), it was here, now, that these sounds came to life. Indeed, they were life: from around the globe came voices and place-based sounds, steeped in the world around me: the waters rising, the people leaving their villages, the sand encroaching: the whole tragedy. Here were the people, the villagers and locals - how I had wanted to hear from them. But this was no intellectual exercise. This was very real indeed. And despite the cold and me needing to retrace my steps quickly, I found myself wanting to listen to their voices from afar, in all their wisdom and hurt, their strength and beauty. Here was something in which I could invest.

Speakman’s choice to hold back the worldly voices until the return leg of the journey is a good call. So too is the anomic design of the app, the dual narratives of the book and the app, and the simple functionality. These serve a purpose. As for the environmental underpinning when married with the She voice – it seems to me overly academic and deadening.

Then again there is a stroke of genius in this work: in its dual stages of the journey, its ability to disrupt expectations, building an underlying tension and then satiate this through a montage of place-based voices on our return leg.

I have no doubt about how much has been invested in this project. With this in mind it would be so good to see Speakman and the Ambient Literature team revisit, (rework? reconsider?) this app. Rather than let it disappear altogether, as so many geo locative audio apps are doing these days, it would be good to see what could be learned here: another iteration perhaps, explore a different narrative framework, a different setting, a new approach.

Perhaps I am simply loathe to see projects of this calibre slip away leaving barely a trace on the art-house circuit. For where is one to go in years to come in order to make a more thorough study of such works in the ledgers of geo locative audio? As things change and we inexorably head towards AR and VR, little old audio is not looking quite so little and old anymore: with its rich lexicon of storytelling, its chicanery, its audible interiority, its associations and affective sounds, as demonstrated through years of radio drama, broadcast features, and now podcast - it has much to offer sound artists and the like who are wanting to work in this field. If we can only pause a little and look at what is going on, what models here are proving noteworthy within the growing pantheon of geo locative media, and why. For there is just as much to be gained by taking stock of what has come before us at this point in time as there is in looking ahead. Speakman’s work is no exception. There is much to learn here.

A big thank you to the Queensland Government and Arts Queensland (and family and friends), who generously supported my UK trip. Without their support this work would not have been possible.

 

 

Hamish Sewell